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PITTSFORD, N.Y. — At first glance, investing a first-round pick at tight end for the Buffalo Bills could have appeared to be a curious choice. Dawson Knox is already on the roster and around draft time, there seemed to be a need at wide receiver.
But as nickel corner Taron Johnson explained, “[Dalton] Kincaid is basically like a receiver anyway.”
In studying Kincaid late in the draft process, he stood out, as offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey explained to ESPN, because of “how he can continue to grow and expand our offense.” The Bills had Kincaid as a top target. He fell further than some expected in the draft, so general manager Brandon Beane decided to trade up two spots to pick No. 25 to bring Kincaid to Buffalo. He has quickly made an impact in part because of how little he comes off as a rookie.
During OTAs, Von Miller raved about him. Quarterback Josh Allen spoke highly of him during camp, saying, “He’s fun to throw to, I’ll tell you that. He’s got a good body language.” Left tackle Dion Dawkins said, “He’s a very good rookie. He’s really not carrying himself like a rookie, and we appreciate that and that’s what we need as a player … we need guys that are ready now, not later.”
This offseason, the Bills added multiple players who bring versatility to their offense, including Kincaid and wide receivers Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield. When it comes to Kincaid specifically, his size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) and abilities as a receiver will give defenses more to prepare for — particularly in the middle of the field and when he and Knox share the field. The Bills’ offense will have more opportunities to catch opposing defenses off guard.
Kincaid already is spending significant time working with Allen and the first-team offense. The 23-year-old has made some impressive catches throughout training camp, including a one-handed grab in the middle of the field during 11-on-11 drills as he fell to the ground and with linebacker Tyrel Dodson in tight coverage.
In 2022, the Bills used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) on the lowest number of snaps in the NFL (38 of 1,037), one of only five teams to be lower than 100. The Las Vegas Raiders had the second-fewest snaps (52). Adding Kincaid gives the Bills offense a player whom Beane was looking for and allows them to the run 12 personnel more — although Beane referred to it as “11 and a half” after the draft with Kincaid helping to connect the offense that is traditionally more of an “11 team,” as Beane said. With Kincaid on the field, defenses will have to choose whether to be in their nickel with the rookie’s abilities as a receiver.
“Having two tight ends out there is one of my favorite things,” Kincaid said, “because you got another guy in your room out there with you.”
Knox said during training camp that “a good bit” of their roles are the same. But when the two are out on the field at the same time, Kincaid is in the “F” spot — or acting like a bigger slot receiver — and Knox is more in line, but there’s some flexibility within that.
“You can also bring [Kincaid] in in line,” Knox said. “A little more versatility. I’ll be more in line, if we’re both on the field but at the same time, you know, we like changing it up, where he goes in line, I spread out, and there might be a linebacker coming out to match me. So, it just adds a whole different layer that the defense has to prepare for, and it’s gonna make it hard on the defensive coordinator.”
Bills defensive coaches agree Kincaid will give opponents more to think about.
“Anytime you can have a player on offense that can go in line and block a defensive end and then he can split out and route up a DB, linebacker, I think that’s a challenge,” linebackers coach Bobby Babich said. “We all know when you play the elite receivers of the world where they’re gonna be, right? They’re gonna be split out and normally they’re gonna be matched up on a DB.
“Where tight ends, it’s a little bit trickier cause they’re in line, are they gonna block? Is it a run? And then, do we have to react to play-action where they’re probably getting a little bit cleaner release than a corner that’s pressed on that elite receiver?”
The exact amount the Bills will want to use the rookie once the season rolls around remains to be seen. His blocking is a work in progress, as it often is in the transition from college to NFL tight end. Coach Sean McDermott also said it takes rookies a little more time to earn trust and playing time.
“You’re giving someone the keys to the kingdom so to speak,” McDermott said. “The players around them more than anything have to trust them that they’re going to execute and be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there as it relates to, in this case, a receiver or a tight end.”
Both McDermott and Beane have stressed that Kincaid is going through normal rookie things with work and learning to be done, keeping expectations in check. But Dorsey, when asked what has stood out the most to him about Kincaid, said it’s how in control he appears.
“I think that more so than anything really stands out is just the fact that he’s really kind of stepped in and he looks like a guy that has been out here before,” Dorsey told ESPN. “I think that’s a big part of kind of who he is and the work he’s put in.”